Sunday, November 12, 2006

Less than a month until Wii-day!

Apologies for the lack of posts recently. I am working on a few reviews to make up for it (Grandia III, Final Fantasy IV Advance and Dead Rising). In the meantime, enjoy this new Zelda: Twilight Princess trailer from Veoh courtesy of NyHc0 and be sure to check out the rest of the trailers he has posted there - it's great stuff and I can't wait to get my Nintendo Wii on December 8th!

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Albatross18: Realms of Pangya review

Hi once again and welcome to another review, this time for the relatively unknown game Albatross18: Realms of Pangya.

Format: PC
Developer: Ntreev Soft
Publisher: Hanbitsoft, GameFactory Inc
Genre: Massively Multiplayer Online Golf RPG
Region: US and Europe
Where to buy: Sign up and download for free at

There have been many quality golf games over the years, from Leaderboard back on the Commodore 64, through the Links series, to Mario Golf, Everybody's Golf (aka Hot Shots), The Tiger Woods PGA series and beyond. With the odd exception (such as EA's Tiger Woods games or Nintendo's Touch Golf on the DS) the basic controls and the way each game works has remained the same. Except this game melds the traditional golf game with ideas borrowed from Japanese RPGs. Intrigued? So was I...

Graphics: 8 out of 10
The graphics in Albatross18 are extremely impressive considering this is a free game. The courses are all very well designed and there's quite a bit of variety between them, including sunny tropical beaches, snowy festive landscapes, huge battleships and windy valleys. In Korea, where the game originated from, they have additional courses that haven't been released here, which include a desert region, an icy course and a hellish volcanic area. This will no doubt eventually make it to our version of the game, but Korea is already in Season 3 of the game and we only have Season 2, so we have some catching up to do.

Considering how good the graphics are it's surprising how little loading time there is, and lag is also noteable by its absence. This really is a slick package. Characters are all drawn in an anime style, featuring big eyes and other exaggerated features. They all look like something you'd find in a typical traditional Japanese console RPG (except of course this game was made in Korea).

Sound & Music: 7 out of 10
Now I must admit that when it comes to the music in Albatross18, you will either love it or hate it. It's very catchy, upbeat, cheerful and cute, not to mention bordering on annoying. I love certain tunes (including one of the ones that plays in the background of Blue Water, but I really can't stand others (the music of North Wiz comes to mind). You'll either be tolerant of it, or you'll turn it off straight away.

There's not a lot of sound effects, but what is there is decent enough. There's the shout of "PangYA!" whenever you pull of a perfect shot (which apparently means bang in Korean), the whistle off the ball as it flies through the air, the thwack as you hit it and other small, unobtusive sounds. Again, considering that this is a free download, the production values manage to outstrip expectations quite easily.

Game Mechanics: 9 out of 10
If you're familiar with other casual golf games such as Mario Golf, you will be able to pick up and play Albatross18 without any problems whatsoever. The same style in swing bar that has been featured in golf titles for close to two decades is in place. Basically, you have a bar at the bottom of the screen with the maximum yardage of your selected club displayed on it, and measurements in between. The first click of the left mouse button (or press of the space bar) starts a small bar moving from left to right. You then have to click again to decide how hard you hit the ball, and the bar will start heading back towards the left. Finally, you have to stop the bar as close to the middle of the pink section at the start as possible, to decide the accuracy of the shot. If you miss a little to the left or right your shot will go to the left or right respectively. If you miss by a lot the shot will be a complete mishit.

You all also have a small picture of the ball in the bottom left with a blue dot in it. You can move this dot to the top to put top spin on the ball, or to the bottom to apply backspin. You can also move it to the left or right to curve the ball, which is very useful if you have a tree directly in front of you which you need to avoid, for example. The controls don't end there, as special moves can also be pulled of by keying in various combinations of the arrow keys as the shot is taking place, including super topspin and backspin, the tomahawk shot and the cobra shot. While the game is very easy for newcomers to get used to, these extra moves and advanced features give the pros plenty of flexibility and depth.

Speaking of depth, you character starts off at the Rookie F level, and moves up to Rookie A where they will then become Beginner E. This pattern then carries on all the way through Junior, Senior, Amateur, Semi-Pro, Pro and National Pro, with the amount of experience needed to advance increasing exponentially from one level to the next. Moving up ranks gives both advantages and disadvantages. For example as a Rookie player you will have a special necklace that increases your accuracy, but as soon as you reach Beginner you won't be able to wear it anymore. Instead Beginner players get an additional Power slot to spend on their character.

Characters can be powered up in various categories, including power, control, spin and accuracy, usually by equipping certain items and sometimes when leveling up. There are two ways of powering up, the first increasing certain attributes by equipping an item, the effects of which are lost when you equip something else. However, some items also come with "slots" which you can spend Pang (the games main currency) to upgrade, which are then permanently part of your character (or at least until you downgrade them).

Pang is earned by playing skillfully, in a similar manner to the way that Kudos is earned in PGR3. You get certain amounts for completing a hole at par (typically 3 to 10 Pang depending on the difficulty of the course) with significantly higher amounts being awarded for Birdies, Eagles, Albatrosses and a Hole in One. You also get pang for hitting the ball further than the clubs typical range (either by using a slope, spin or the wind), very difficult chip-in shots, long putts and for pulling off the special moves. An extra 1000 Pang is awarded every time you beat your personal best on one of the courses, but considering that the really useful stuff in the Shop starts at 5100 Pang minimum and goes up to around 300000 for the really good stuff, expect to be saving for a while. Extra characters and caddies also have to be bought with pang, or with Cookies, which is the way that Hanbitsoft make their money.

Cookies can only be gained by buying them with real money on the web site, with prices ranging from about $10 to $50. Certain items of clothing in the shop, or extra charters can only be bought with Cookies. Now, I know what you're thinking, what's to stop rich kids from just buying tons of Cookies and then just buying all the good stuff?

Well, they can... but in most cases the Cookie versions of clothing and items are only a little bit better than the Pang equivalents. Plus if you buy an item of clothing with slots on it you still need to pay out a load of pang in order to upgrade them. So while you gain a slight advantage buy paying out some cash, it isn't really that much of a big deal. If you don't want to spend your money on this game, don't bother. Chances are however you'll find yourself enjoying yourself so much you'll actually want to support the developers by reinvesting some cash into the game.

There are several modes of play. To start with you will only have access to the VS room, where you can play Stroke or Match games with 2-4 people, with each person taking turns. This is the best way to earn experience and to have a more personal game with just a few people. Once you advance past the first level, you will unlock access to the Tournament server. Here, up to 30 people play a full 18 hole round of golf at the same time, with a maximum time limit (usuallly between 30-40 minutes) for everyone to complete the course. Scores are updated in real time and the wind and weather are hard to predict, giving a different experience every time. Then we have the new Pang Battle mode, which is basically like Skins in traditional golf where you put a certain amount of Pang on the line per hole and the winner takes the pot. Finally, there's Family mode - which lets you and other real life friends or family play on the same computer.

Innovation and Cleverness: 7 out of 10
While casual golf games have been around for a long time, and even a golf RPG has been done before (the Game Boy Color version of Mario Golf) the way that Albatross18 fuses the two genres together makes it a rather unique playing experience. When I've mentioned the idea of a golf RPG to some of my friends they have been both confused and a bit disgusted by the idea, but you really should give the game a chance. There is practically no risk involved seeing as the game costs nothing to download and runs smoothly on modest PC's - in fact I'd say the only risk is that you will become addicted to the game and spend the next few months of your life playing golf with strangers on fantasy islands. There are those who will never "get it" and will remain content to just waste away their lives playing Halo 2 until the end of time - their loss in my opinion. If you fancy something different then don't be afraid of giving it a try.

I would also like to mention the Clubstar Calendar system as something I found particularly innovative. On your account page on the Albatross18 web site, you will find your very own Clubstar Calendar page. For every day that you play a full game and then log out, you will earn a sticker on the calendar. Prizes are then awarded for those that manage to play on 7 days, 15 days and full month, with the prize getting better each time. Furthermore, there are 5 additional randomly selected days where you will also earn an item just for playing that day. This gives you an incentive to keep coming back, and the better prizes are really worthwhile. At the moment you can earn a special ball for playing everyday in a month - the Golden Phoenix, which is only available this way and can't be bought with Pang or Cookies, although this could change at any time. It's really not that difficult to play everyday, because a 3 hole, 2 player VS game only take about 15 minutes at the most.

Value and Replayability: 10 out of 10
Being a free game, Albatross18 is of course exceptional value, but there's a ton of things to do in the game as well. To start with there's 8 courses in the game at the moment, all of which have their own little quirks, so these will take a fair bit of time just to get used to and improve your score. Then there's the leveling up system, which will take you a fair old while to get all the way to the top. It takes most people an average of 30 hours just to get from Rookie to Beginner, so you can imagine how long it will take to get to National Pro. There's also the items, character upgrades and random variables such as the wind and weather that ensure you never experience the same game twice, even on the same course. This guarantees things will never become boring. Finally, you have all the real people that you will meet and talk to as you play, which have to be one of the nicest on line communities I've yet come across. Golf is a much more gentle game than an FPS and I can't help thinking that this has some effect on the attitude of the people on the servers, there much less aggressive and less likely to swear at you. There's also a fairly high percentage of female players which makes a refreshing change.

Overall: 9 out of 10
At first I only downloaded this game out of curiosity because I heard that a version of it was coming to the Nintendo Wii (Super Swing Golf PANGYA) but it didn't take long for me to be hooked. Now it has become one of the best games I have played all year and I sincerely recommend it to anyone who isn't afraid to try something a little different, or is strapped for cash and want a good new game to play. With Albatross18, Ntreev have scored a hole in one!

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Xbox 360 week - the conclusion

So there you have it. All of the 7 games I've reviewed this week are worth checking out. You can expect more Xbox 360 reviews in the future, including Perfect Dark Zero which can be picked up used for £20.

There are some exciting games just around the corner for the 360, including Dead Rising, Test Drive Unlimited, Lumines Live and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night.

Of course, before the end of the year we can expect the Nintendo Wii to be released, and you can expect the same RetroModern Gaming treatment then. Soon we will get our hands on Zelda: The Twilight Princess at last and find out whether it lives up to all the hype.

I'm going to take a short break from blogging now but you can expect me to return very soon with new content. See you there!

Moto GP 06 review

Here it is, the 7th and final part of my week dedicated to Xbox 360 reviews. This time I'm taking a look at Moto GP 06.

Format: Xbox 360
Publisher: THQ
Developer: Climax
Genre: Motorbike simulation
Region: NTSC (Game is region free!)
Price: PAL version £50 - NTSC for as low as £22
First off, I want to say that I will try my hardest to be unbiased while writing this review. You see, one of my oldest friends Kim Burrows, was a programmer on the game. He even put my name in the credits in the Special Thanks section just after his newborn baby boy. As such I have more of a vested interest in this game than most, even though under normal circumstances I probably wouldn't have bought it, as motorbikes aren't really my thing.

Graphics: 8 out of 10
The visuals in Moto GP 06 fall somewhere in between those of PGR3 and Ridge Racer 6. It isn't quite as insanely detailed as Bizarre's game, but is definitely a step up from Namco's racer. The sense of speed, especially when you are in the first-person view, is really quite phenomenal. Thoccasionalal bit of texture tearing is evident but it's nowhere near as noticeable as GamesTM magazine would have you believe.

The Grand Prix tracks all look pretty much as they should - beinmodeleded on real life locations, but some of them are rather sparse. This isn't really the developers fault - they're merely representing the tracks as they appear in real life. The other half of the game, the Extreme mode, features much more lavish tracks which are full of background details such as fountains and rides which you will just about get a glance of as you go hurtling past at breakneck speed. Each of the Extreme races take place at sunset as well so there's some nice lighting effects on show. Really, the GP tracks do exactly as they should - they give die hard fans of the Moto GP season accurate representations of the course they've seen on TV or visited in real life, whereas the Extreme tracks are really an opportunity for the designers and artists at Climax to show off.

When you get this many real life racers going through the same corner, expect there to be casualties.

Sound and Music: 6 out of 10
The sound effects, much like the graphics in the GP mode, accurately represent real life bikes and are well done. Personally, I thought the music was alright, but not spectacular. One major downside of them music though is that the particular tune chosen for a race will repeat over and over instead of another tune being selected, which can begin to grate on longer races. I usually find myself making use of the custom soundtracks option in this case and streaming something from my PC (I recommend the Pirates of thCaribbeanan soundtrack - strangely it works!). So, the sound isn't horrible, just not as good as it could have been.
Game Mechanics: 8 out of 10
Moto GP 06 is split into two distinct halves - the Grand Prix mode and the Extreme mode. Within the Grand Prix mode you will find a full simulation of both the 2005 and 2006 Moto GP seasons, with all the real life tracks (17 of them) and riders you would expect. The learning curve is actually quite smooth, because there are four difficulty settings, a decent tutorial mode, and a variety of challenges geared around helping you learn the toughest parts of each circuit.
At first you will probably fall off your bike at regular intervals, but as you slowly a) get used to the game and b) improve you statistics blevelingng up your rider this should become less frequent and you will start to enjoy the game. You can either choose a quick race or a full-on season comprising of 17 races each with Challenge, Practice, Qualifying and Race options. The number of laps can also be adjusted from 1 up to a full length race for those who take they're racing really seriously.

On the other side of the coin is the Extreme mode, which is much features handling which is much more forgiving (almost, but not quite arcade style), and 17 fantasy tracks based around locations around the globe. As well as the same four difficulty settings as the Grand Prix mode, Extreme mode also features 600cc, 1000cc and 1200 bikes. In order to race in the faster leagues you will first have to earn enough money to buy one of the bikes. This mode also allows you to buy upgrades for your bike, and so gives a bit more freedom and depth than the Grand Prix races.

One thing I wasn't that keen on was having to race a full Grand Prix season before I could try the Extreme mode, as I wanted to try that first. To be fair though, this was probably a stipulation that the Moto GP association made, as after all it is an officially licensed product. Really, Climax didn't have to include an Extreme mode at all, and it's a really nice extra for those who wan't a break from the more serious Grand Prix races or prefer they're driving a bit more on the forgiving side. Look at Namco's Moto GP series on the PlayStation 2 - they didn't offer anything like an Extreme mode in that, did they?
Then there is the Xbox Live mode, which lets you do everything you could do in single player but up against real life opponents. It really works very well and as yet I haven't encountered any problems with lag or slowdown. The online mode also has two extra modes - Stunt and Tag, which are fun asides from the pure racing if you're in the mood for something a bit different.
You start off with a seed of 100, and everytime you beat people who are seeded higher than you (either online or off) this will go up. At first this will improve quite quickly, but when you get to around seed 70 it will start to slow down.
The achievements include things like racing a certain number of times, reaching a certain seed, and completing the challenges. Some are quite easy to complete, others will take quite a bit of work - which is the ideal balance, in my opinion.
Innovation & Cleverness: 4 out 10
Because this is the fourth iteration of the Moto GP series, and nothing much has really changed since Moto GP 3 on the original Xbox (other than glossier presentation and some new tracks), I'm afraid I have to give the game a fairly low score in this category. It is a very solid game and has plenty to offer newcomers - however if you already own a previous version of the game you may want to think twice before buying it again.
Value & Replayability: 9 out of 10
Moto GP 06 scores very highly in this department, because of the sheer amount of stuff for you to do. There are two very distinct modes with 17 tracks and 4 difficulty settings in each, many different options to play with and challenges. Add the Xbox Live mode which in theory you can keep playing for as long as you want, and it will take you a fair old while to experience everything that Moto GP 06 has to offer. Next, I'll let you in on a little secret that you may not know. Moto GP 06 is region free, and Play-Asia currently has it for sale for £22, which is where I got my copy. Now, I'm not so sure I would have paid out £40-£50 on this game seeing as I'm not a big fan of bikes in the first place, but for £22 it's a bargain.

The replays are packed with detail.

Overall: 8 out 10
Moto GP 06 will initially take a bit of getting used to, but once you do adjust to the correct way to drive a bike your level of enjoyment will rise immensely. Playing through the various seasons in single player is good fun, but nothing beats driving with a bunch of real life friends or rivals on Xbox Live. The extra muscle that the Xbox 360 gives just about justifies this 2006 update to the series, but I can't really see that there's much further to go.
Finally, don't confuse this game with the Moto GP series on the PS2 - they are completely separate entities developed by different teams. For the record, the Xbox games by Climax are better by far - they look nicer, are more enjoyable, have better controls and feature more to do.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Zuma Deluxe review

Here's my penultimate review for Xbox 360 week. I was originally going to review Street Fighter II: Hyper Fighting but I feel I haven't spent enough time playing it to do it justice. Instead I will review Zuma Deluxe, which has been eating up a lot of my time recently.

Format: Xbox 360 (Live Arcade)
Publisher: Microsoft
Developer: PopCap
Genre: Puzzle
Region: All
Price: 800 MS points
Where to buy: Xbox Live Marketplace

Many years ago a company by the name of Mitchell release an arcade puzzle called entitle Puzzloop. In this game you controlled a central "cannon" which fired out various coloured balls. Around you cannon was a spiral shaped track, along which similar coloured balls rolled along, towards a hole near the centre. If any of the balls should reach the centre, you lose a life. To stop the onslaught of balls, you have to fire orbs out of your cannon and match up three or more of the same colour. The aiming system is rather reminiscent of Puzzle Bobble/Bust-A-Move, except you can fire in 360 degrees.

Later on, Popcap took the basic concept of the game, added a Mayan theme, and released it on the PC as a shareware title. It was a roaring success, and as a result Microsoft saw the potential of the game on their Xbox Live Arcade service and signed up PopCap to make a deluxe version. A very similar game entitled Magnetica has also been released on the DS recently - the main differences being a more futuristic look and the use of the stylus as the primary control method. This is really the true sequel to Puzzloop however, as it is made by the original creators Mitchell. That doesn't stoop Zuma Deluxe from being a bloody good game, however.
As well as simple colour matching, there are a variety of power ups that randomly appear and can really save your life in times of stress. There's one that makes all the balls go backwards for a while, one that explodes and wipes out the area around it, another that pauses the movement of the balls for a few seconds, and one that makes your aiming more accurate.

The aim of the game in the main Adventure mode is to earn enough points to activate Zuma mode. You do this by scoring points, from clearing balls, setting of chain reactions, firing through gaps and collecting random coins that appear in hard to reach places. Once Zuma mode is achieved, no more new balls will appear and you can clear up any that remain. Then everything starts over on a different shaped track. Occasionally, there will be two tracks at once and you will really have to concentrate and aim well in order to survive. There's also a Gauntlet mode included in the game, which is endless. This time when Zuma is activated you go up a level and things get harder. Every so often another coloured ball is added to complicate matters even further.

The first time you encounter one of these double track levels, you will probably panic!

Graphics: 7 out of 10
The graphics in Zuma Deluxe are most definitely bright and colourful as you can see from the screenshot above, but there isn't an awful lot to them. Nevertheless the design is quite pleasing to the eye and there are many differently shaped tracks for the balls to travel along. There's not really a whole lot to say here - they're functional, not amazing, but quite stylish at the same time.

Sound and Music: 8 out 10
I really love the sound effects in Zuma Deluxe. There's a very satisfying popping sound every time you fire a ball out of your frog-cannon, and a clack as the balls hit each other. There's only two different pieces of music that play in the game - a normal theme and a panic theme when you're about to lose. They capture the Mayan style of the game quite well with the instruments and chanting, but can get a bit repetitive after extended play. The panic music can be quite useful if you didn't realise you were in danger, but it can also just make you more stressed sometimes too.

Game Mechanics: 7 out of 10
Only a few puzzle games have really captured my attention and kept me playing for hours on end. These include Tetris of course, and Bust-A-Move 2 for the PlayStation. I can now add Zuma Deluxe to the list. It's just incredibly good fun to pop the coloured balls and try and clear as many stages as you can. The sound effects play a part in this, but it's also down to the fact that the basic game design (as detailed in the introduction) works really well. To be fair though this is more down to the designers of the originally Puzzloop, as PopCap essentially copied the game and reskinned it.

Innovation and Cleverness: 6 out of 10
Zuma Deluxe gets 1 out of 5 for Innovation, and 5 out of 5 for cleverness. There's just to escaping that fact that this is essentially a remake of someone else's game, but also that it really works. PopCap did bring a few new ideas to the table such as the Mayan theme, but for the most part it is somebody else's work. The fact that the game has managed to hook me after one look at the trial version is testament to the good groundwork that Mitchell made though, and a good game is still a good game no matter how it is reskinned.

The first stage of the game is a basic spiral but things get much more convoluted later on.

Value and Replayability: 9 out of 10
Once Zuma gets its claws into you there's no escaping the addictivness of the game. There are many different temples to conquer in Adventure mode, and once you've done that you can attempt to earn the highest rank on each of the individual stages in Gauntlet mode which will take both considerable time and skill. There's the usual smattering of achievements that help add depth and challenge to the game, and these include earning 100 gap bonuses, and playing the game for a total of 24 hours. 24 hours might seem like quite a long time to be playing a simple puzzle game, but once you start playing that time will go by fairly quickly as you'll be playing at every opportunity.

Overall: 9 out of 10
Personally, Zuma Deluxe is my favourite game on Xbox Live Arcade at the moment. It beats Geometry Wars because there's a more gentle learning curve, and I'm actually quite good at it (which counts for a lot). Even today at work I can't get the music and the popping sound out of my head and I can't wait to get home and have another go. Zuma is definitely worth the 800 points - it's just a shame they didn't include any multiplayer mode. Magnetica on the DS does have a single card multiplayer mode however, and come pay day I shall pick it up and find out how it compares to Zuma as an overall package.

Join me tomorrow as my Xbox 360 week concludes with Moto GP 06.

Friday, August 18, 2006

The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion review

Day 5 is all about The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, pretty much the only RPG availabe for the 360 right now. Luckily, it takes so long to complete that some more should have been released by the time you're done.

Format: Xbox 360
Publisher: 2K Games
Developer: Bethesda Softworks
Genre: First-person RPG
Region: PAL (Europe, Australia)
Price: Around £50
Where to buy:,
The Elder Scrolls series has been around for many years now (at least a decade, it could be more). It all started with Arena, an epic first person RPG set in the world of Tamriel. Together with games like Ultima Underworld it pushed the boundaries of what could be done in the RPG genre and amazed all those that played it. Since then there have been several sequels and spinoffs, which added the ability to become a werewolf for example, and all of them were lapped up by the fans. Until the release of Morrowind on the Xbox in 2003 all of the games in the series were PC exclusives, mainly because there hadn't really been a machine capable enough to run such a huge ambitious game. Because the Xbox had a hard drive this was all changed, and the game did rather well. Thanks to this, Xbox 360 owners get to enjoy Oblivion, one of the most finely crafted games that I have ever played. The control system has even been created with the 360 controller in mind, and it works very well. The game isn't without it's faults though, as you're about to find out.
Graphics: 8 out of 10
Although the sights you will see while exploring the nation of Cyrodiil are very pretty, the Xbox 360 doesn't quite have the grunt to keep the frame rate steady and the game suffers from immersion-breaking stutters, especially outdoors. I have also played the game on the PC and the same thing happens there, except you can tweak various settings like turning the grass off (which is the biggest culprit of the slowdown). Unfortunately you're stuck with the default settings on the 360 version, so unless Bethesda release a patch the dodgy frame rate is here to stay.

The problem goes away almost entirely in towns and dungeons, and it's here that the game really gets to show off. Dungeons are typically dark, dank places full of mist and half-light, and they're very atmospheric indeed. Outside, night turns slowly to day and back to night again thanks to the accelerated day/night cycle. These days there are many games that have a similar feature but it's still impressive and helps you feel part of a living breathing world.

Character models all look a bit waxy (a common problem with 360 titles it seems) and some of the people you meet are very ugly indeed. Monsters are quite traditional in their range (rats, skeletons, wolves, demons, vampires) but are well designed nonetheless. The lighting in dungeons can actually be an aid to gameplay - for example if there's a skeleton standing around the corner with a light source behind him, a shadow will give away his location on the ground. In combination with the sound effects this can be a great help in locating and sneaking up on enemies.

Ooh, what a shiny shield!

Sound and Music: 8 out of 10
The music in Oblivion is very reminiscent of Howard Shore's Lord of the Rings soundtrack, which suits the style of the game just fine. There's only one problem - there's not enough of it. You will hear the same pieces of musc over and over again throughout the course of the game, especially if you take time out from the main quest to join the many guilds or complete the dozens of side quests. Good as the music undoubtedly is, you will still probably start to get tired of it before long. My recommendation is download the Lord of the Rings soundtrack from iTunes and then play that using the Xbox Guide - it's a perfect match for the style of the game and will give you something different to listen to.

The sound effects can play a very big part in the gameplay, especially if you choose to play as a stealth character like I did. Often when creeping around a dungeon or trying to break into somebodies house unnoticed, you will hear the moan of a zombie, the rattling bones of skeleton, or the owner of the aforesaid house saying something like "Who's there?!". If you're quick enough you can freeze and the person in question will assume they were imagining things and go back to their business. It really helps you feel immersed in the game, and when you hear those bones rattling and creaking from somewhere out of site it will freak you out.

The third and final part of the sound category is the voice over work. Now, just like the music, this is very well done, but there isn't enough variety. You will hear the same 4 or 5 voice actors playing almost every part in the game, with the exception of the Emporer Tiber Septim played by Patrick Stewart (Jean Luc Picard), and Martin Septim, his long lost son, played by Sean Bean (Boromir, or Sharpe). Patrick Stewart adds a certain air of gravitas to the opening scenes of the game, but his contribution is rather brief because his character is bumped off not long after the game begins. Sean Bean has much more to say, and does a pretty good job at it too. The other actors in the game do put in good performances, but it's a great shame that Bethesda didn't hire a wider range of people because hearing every second person speak with exactly same voice does detract from the realism and reminds you that you are playing a game.
Plot and Character: 8 out of 10
You will meet a wide range of characters on your journey, both minor and major, all of which have a distinct personality and their own daily routine. This does help maintain the illusion that you are exploring a real world. Unfortunately there are a few quirks that break the illusion somewhat - such as the city guards. If you are in visible range of someone - anyone when you break the law, the guards will be after you wherever you go in the entire world. It doesn't matter if you travel hundreds of miles away to the far ends of the world, you will still be arrested. As far as I know the guards in Oblivion haven't got mobile phones or email, so how do they know they should be on the look out for you so quickly?
The main plot of the game is fairly standard fair, dealing with prophecies, long lost heirs, demon lords - you know, the usual. Some of the side quests actually have much more interesting tales to tell, and there is plenty of background detail if you are willing to stop and look at your surroundings rather than blasting straight through to the end of the game. There are many books that can be picked up and read should you wish to do so, and if you don't then nobody's forcing you.

Ewww, nice rotting corpse!

Game Mechanics: 8 out of 10
Oblivion is an RPG in the PC mould, rather than the usual console style. By this I mean that you are in control of every facet of your character and what you do is left entirely up to you, rather than playing as a predefined, usually whiny teenager with spikey hair, accompanied by his female best friend with unfeasibly large norks. Traditionally I haven't really got on with this sort of game - I've tried Baldur's Gate, Neverwinter Nights and even Morrowind, and couldn't really get into them. They've always felt quite innacessible, and it's often easy to get lost or find yourself wandering into an area where you're totally out of your depth.
Oblivion gets around this by making the enemies in the game level up along with you - so you'll always have a fair challenge but you won't get annihilated just for wondering what's over that hill. There's also a clearly defined main storyline and easy to follow markers that help you find your objective should that be your focus, but you're completely free to wander the land, taking on any quests and joining any guilds that take your fancy. There are four different guiilds - Fighter's, Mage's, Thieves and the Dark Brotherhood, as well as the Imperial Arena to sign up to, and each features it's own lengthy chain of quests for you to complete as you progress through the ranks. This is also the key to most of the achievements in the game - as you become Bloodletter, in the Arena for example, you unlock some gamer points for that. You can join all of the guilds, or none at all, it's entirely up to you.
The controls are very well done - everything feels logically mapped on to the 360 pad, including the ability to put weapons, items and spells on one of the d-pad directions for quick access. If you desire, you can almost play the game as an FPS - storming through dungeons and shooting enemies with your arrows. Or you can sneak about, queitly assasinating anyone who gets in your way with a poison tipped arrow, unlocking treasure chests and stealing valuables. Or, you can play as a mage, throwing fireballs and cursing people as you go. Or, you can play as a brutish orc, violently clubbing anyone and everyone with a huge warhammer. The way you play the game is left entirely up to you and if you're in the right mood it's brilliant. Sometimes you may wish for a little more structure in your game and it's unfortunate that there isn't really a japanese style RPG available for the 360 at the moment. Hopefully Namco's Trusty Bell will get a western release though.
Innovation and Cleverness: 7 out of 10
Oblivion is more a refinement of an existing idea that anything radically new, but it's the way it does what it does that make it revolutionary. It's very easy to get used to the game for RPG veterans and novices alike thanks to the interface and the way it can be played like an action game if you so wish. It's also a true example of what next generation console technology can do - no previous machine could have produced something as huge and good looking as Oblivion. But there are problems, especially the frame rate which really should have been locked down before the game shipped in my opinion.
Value and Replayability: 10 out of 10
Oblivion is such a huge game that it can quite easily take you in excess of 100 hours to finish if you are willing to put in the time. If you're not, you can reach the end with 25. Take on every single quest and guild available if that's your thing, or just try one of them and then try a different one when you play again as a totally different character type. The broad range of things to do, see and try in Oblivion make it well worth a 10 in this category.
Overall: 8 out of 10
This game is an incredibly ambitious project for anyone to undertake (both for developers and indeed players), but it doens't quite reach it's full potential. In certain circumstances, such as when you are deep in a dungeon crawling with the undead - it's fantastic. But at other times, including when you are travelling accross the oveworld and the game slows to a juddering crawl thanks to the bloody grass, or you hear a yet another villager with the same voice, the level of immersion is broken. It's a bit dissapointing that Bethesda didn't invest a bit of extra time or money (or whatever was needed) to fix these problems before the game was released. If you crave an RPG, it's pretty much your only choice on the 360 right now, but don't be surprised if somebody manages to top it some time in the future. Maybe the similar looking Two Worlds will be the game to do so? We'll have to wait and see.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Marble Blast Ultra review

We're on day 4 already, and this time I'm reviewing the Live Arcade title Marble Blast Ultra.

Format: Xbox 360 (Live Arcade)
Publisher: Microsoft
Developer: Garage Games
Genre: Puzzle
Region: All
Price: 800 MS points
Where to buy: Xbox Live Marketplace

If you've ever played Super Monkey Ball then you will be familiar with the basic concept of Marble Blast Ultra. Guide your spherical object around a maze of obstacles and try and get to the goal within the allotted time. MBU does have a few differences however, such as the inclusion of gems scattered around certain levels which you have to collect before the goal becomes active, or a slightly different feel which stems from the fact that you are actually directly controlling the marble this time, rather than tilting the floor. It's your task to make your way through 60 increasingly tough stages (grouped into sets of 20). To start with you will probably just concentrate on finishing each level, but later you can attempt to be the par time for each stage, and once that's done you can still try to get to the top of the Xbox Live leaderboard.

The levels can really get quite fiendish later on.

Graphics: 9 out of 10
When Xbox Live Arcade was first unveiled most people imagined that the games would all be 2D in nature. After all there's a 50mb size limit on each game, so it would be pretty hard to fit anything 3D into that restriction. But, thanks to the bespoke shader engine that developer Garage Games have developed, not only is Marble Blast Ultra in full 3D, but it features quite detailed texture maps, and everything has a polished sheen to it. The marble itself it particularly life like. Some levels even have you rolling around on ice which looks just as you'd expect - all cold and slippery.

Everything moves along at quite a pace too - I've never experienced any slowdown in the game, even in the online mode (more on that later).

Sound and Music: 6 out 10
Functional, but not offensive is probably the best way to describe the sound in Marble Blast Ultra. There isn't really anything that will get on your nerves, but then again there's nothing astounding here either. The squeaking sound of the ball as it rolls on ice is quite cool I guess. The music is a selection of upbeat dancey tunes which again are hardly a revelation but probably won't make you reach for the mute button in disgust.

Game Mechanics: 8 out of 10
Besides what I have already mentioned at the start of my review, Marble Blast Ultra brings a few new ideas to the "Marble Madness" genre (for want of a better term). The main difference between this game and similar titles are the range of power-ups. This include speed boosts, gyrocopters for gliding across gaps, giant balls which make certain areas easier to navigate (or make it easier to smack rivals off the level), and an ultra blast. If your blast meter is full enough, you can pull of a special move which gives you a bit of extra height on a jump, or repels rivals in multiplayer mode. The ultra blast is an extra powerful version of this move which can send enemies flying off the level altogether (they do come back after a few seconds, but that can often be enough time to clinch the victory).

I've already mentioned the gem collecting earlier in the review, and this forms the crux of the online multiplayer battle mode. In this mode, gems randomly appear in the level, and the players have to race each other to pick them up. Once all of the current gems have been snaffled up, another set appears elsewhere in the stage and the players all race off once again. There are red gems worth one point, yellow ones worth two, blue ones worth 5 and probably more that I haven't seen yet. The power-ups from the single player mode all return in multiplayer and can make all the difference when it comes to winning or losing. It makes for a fast, fun game that is a great complement to the single player game, and gives you a reason to keep playing once all 60 of the puzzle levels have been beaten.

The Achievements in Marble Blast Ultra include beating the levels, beating the par times, winning online games, getting a certain score in multiplayer and so on. They aren't as inventive as some games doing the rounds but they do give you a little incentive to try and finish the game.

MBU is definitely one of the better looking games on XBLA.

Innovation & Cleverness: 7 out of 10
The basic time-trial game of getting a marble (or monkey in a ball) has been around for years, but the inventive power-ups and multiplayer mode helps set Marble Blast Ultra apart and stop it from becoming simply a "me too" title.

Value & Replayability: 8 out of 10

60 levels isn't really a whole lot compared to the 100+ plus featured in the Super Monkey Ball games, but when you remember that they cost £30 at least, and Marble Blast Ultra is only about £6, you can't really grumble. There is some replay from trying to beat the par times, and the leaderboard is a nice touch. Then you have the multiplayer mode which you can come back to for as long as you want. The great thing about this game is that it's readily available to all Xbox 360 owners that are online and is very cheap, so they'll never be a shortage of people to play against. It's a shame you can play against a friend locally, but I suppose we can't have everything.

Overall: 8 out of 10
Marble Blast Ultra is definitely one of the better games available on the Xbox Live Arcade, and I highly recommend checking it outespeciallyly if you're a fan of the Super Monkey Ball games or even the classic Marble Madness. Rather than being a rehash though, MBU does have enough new elements to make it worth having a go even if you already have those games on other formats.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Ridge Racer 6 review

Here I am again on day 3 of my Xbox 360 week. This time I will be looking at Ridge Racer 6. Sure, it's another racer, but it's quite different to PGR3.

Format: Xbox 360
Publisher: Namco
Developer: Namco
Genre: Arcade Racer
Region: PAL (Europe, Australia)
Price: £30 - £50

Where to buy:,,

As you may be aware if you've seen my Ridge Racer Retrospective feature, or my head to head review of Ridge Racer DS & Ridge Racers for the PSP, I am a long term fan of the series. This dates back to the very first time I played the game in an arcade whilst on holiday, and I was amazed by the game. This was back when true 3D in racing games was almost unheard of, and the only other similar title at the time was Sega's Virtua Racing. These two games revolutionised the racing genre and made it a whole lot better in the process. The days of flat Mode 7 style tracks and sprites for cars were numbered, and thank god.

The series has had its ups (Rage Racer and Type 4 are particular favourites of mine) and downs (Ridge Racer DS, and to a lesser extent Ridge Racer 5) but I for one am very glad it's still managed to keep going after all these years. It may not be a particularly deep experience, but it's a lot of fun and great to pick up and play in short doses.

Graphics: 7 out of 10
Compared to the super-detailed cars and backgrounds in PGR3, Ridge Racer 6 is quite a sparse affair. Nevertheless it looks clean and everything thunders along nice and smoothly at 60 frames per second. Road textures are quite nice, catching the setting sun or glimmering in the heat, and the tracks themselves are well designed with all sorts of scenic details like lakes, valleys, cows and planes that fly overhead. The cars are nice and shiny and well designed (all of them are fictional) but there's only two camera views - a chase cam and a bumper cam - no fully rendered interiors can be found here. Overall, the graphics suit the needs of the game perfectly well and don't slow down at all (which is the most important thing), even when playing the game online. It doesn't push the 360 to it's limits by any means but it's a noticeable step up from the original Xbox or PS2.

"That's some craaaaaaazy nitrous!"
Shut up, announcer guy.

Music and Sound: 8 out of 10
You will probably either love the music and sound in RR6 or absolutely loathe it. The soundtrack consists of various, dance, trance and techno tunes, which are quite similar in style to the tunes found in all the previous RR games. Personally I love most of the music, especially for the odd tune that really gets on my nerves and have to change straight away. "Sueno del Mar" is a favourite of mine. More tunes can be bought on the Xbox Live Marketplace (more than 30 of them) but personally I think they're a bit of a con at 80 points each (plus they each take up around 50mb of valuable space on your hard drive).

Most reviews I've read hate the announcer, who is seemingly obsessed with the word Nitrous, but he never really annoyed me all that much. Slightly cheesy announcers have long been a characteristic of the series and RR6 is no different. Later on you can even unlock Heihachi from the Tekken series as an optional announcer! So, how you feel about the music and sound largely depends on your own personal taste in music, and how tolerant you are of the constant nitrous-related sayings as you tear round the track.

Game Mechanics: 7 out of 10
The basic structure of Ridge Racer 6 remains the same as the other games in the series. Race three laps against a field of 13 other racers, and try and take the number 1 spot by the end. Nitrous was added in Ridge Racers for the PSP and it's back again here, except now you can store them up and fire off two or three at a time for longer, more powerful bursts of speed. You earn this nitrous by drifting wildly around the corners, which is very easy to do. Certain races in the World Xplorer mode have special conditions - for example No Nitrous or Reverse Charge Nitrous (where you can only charge the nitrous gauge while firing of a banked nitrous shot).
Speaking of the World Xlplorer mode, this is the main single player mode in the game, and it's absolutely huge. There are well over 200 race events that will need to be cleared before you complete the game, in various different routes including Basic, Advanced, Expert, Special and more. You can choose as many as 7 events at a time from the hex grid and take them on, or just take on each race one at a time. There's no doubt that there's a ton of things to do in RR6, but whether you wilperseverere to the end is another matter. There are several reasons for this. Firstly, there are only 15 tracks, spread out over 200+ events, which means things get rather samey after a while. Secondly, the difficulty is practically noexistentnt for the first 110 or so races - you can literally sleepwalk your way through them all. Thirdly, when you finally do get to the more challenging races, the AI drivers cheat so badly that you will probably end up throwing your controller down in frustration. It seems while you have to earn your nitrous, the AI drivers can fire it off whenever they want (usually when you've just taken the lead).

For Ridge Racer die-hards like myself who have been playing the games for years, these things can be overlooked, but those who are looking for a fun racer may grow tired of it after a while. In my opinion the game is best played in short bursts - you could find yourself becoming jaded after an extended session.

A special mention has to go the Achievements in RR6. Some of these are actually quite inventive, others will take an absolute age to complete. For example, one challenge sees you having to earn 15,000 points in the Pac Man mini game that comes with the game (which isn't too hard to do), which unlocks a special Pac Man event on the world map (which is an absolute bugger to beat). The true marathon achievements are the No Nitrous and No Collision challenges in Single Race mode. Like the names suggest, you have to win on every single track (forward and reverse) in every single class (1-4 and special) without using a single nitrous, or hitting any cars and walls respectively. If you're very good you might manage to do both at the same time, but believe me when you're surrounded by up to 7 other cars avoiding a collision is very tough indeed. I must point out that these are optional tasks though, if you don't feel like doing them then don't worry about it. There's also a Global Time Attack mode so you can see just how crap you really are compared to the world's best drivers, and the usual split screen multiplayer modes.
Finally we come to the online mode, which can be fun, but only if you're playing against people of similar ability to yourself. There's very little enjoyment to be had getting beaten time and time again by someone who doesn't have to go to work and can just play and play and play for up to 10 hours a day. Luckily the game does have a ranked option but I found that even that was a bit erratic, often putting me up against people way better or worse than myself. If you're someone who wants to get all the achievements in the game, you might have quite a task ahead of you, as they include getting 50, 100 and 200 online wins, as well as simply taking part in 230 races to win all of the cars (you get awarded a new one for every 10 races). The wins in particular can be quite slow in coming (I've done 25 races and won 1 so far). Maybe the only solution is to find a friend with the game and let each other win until you've filled your quota (but that feels a bit dishonest).

Series starlet Reiko Nagase makes a return in the cut-scenes.

Innovation & Cleverness: 6 out of 10
I'm giving RR6 6 out of 10 in this category mainly because of the clever achievements which add a whole ton of extra play time to the game (assume you can be bothered to do them). Other than that, Ridge Racer 6 is basically more of what you've come to expect from the series. At least the tracks are all brand new (and well designed), rather than the "best of" compilation from Ridge Racers on the PSP
Value & Replayability: 7 out of 10
Again, this really depends on how quickly you get tired of racing the same tracks over and over and whether you're willing to invest the time in trying to earn all of the achievements. Even I as a long-term Ridge fan have struggled to keep playing past the halfway mark once the races start to get really annoying, and I have to take a break and play other games. I always come back and try again though, and usually that one race that was blocking my way drops on the first try when I return.

Overall: 7 out of 10
While Ridge Racer 6 is definitely some way away from being the worst game in the series (Ridge Racer 64/DS takes that honour), it's not as good the very best of the series either (Rage Racer or Ridge Racer Type 4 come to mind). The World Xplorer would actually havbenefiteded from being cut in half in my opinion, or at least a more gradual difficulty curve and balanced races. I'm still glad I bought it, but if you're not a Ridge Racer veteran you may wonder what all the fuss is about.

The design of later cars can get rather wild.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved review

Welcome to day 2 of my Xbox 360 week, which this time is a review of Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved for Xbox Live Arcade.

Format: Xbox 360 (Live Arcade)
Publisher: Microsoft
Developer: Bizzare Creations (Stephen Cakebread)
Genre: Retro/Twin-Stick Shooter (see Robotron/Smash TV)
Region: Global
Price: 400 Microsoft Points

The original Geometry Wars was an extra bonus game hidden away in the garage of Project Gotham Racing 2. It started life as a testbed for some joystick code that creator Stephen "Cakey" Cakebread had created to make sure his code was working properly. As time went on, he kept having ideas for new enemy types, and the game literally evolved into the game we know today. It created something of a mini-phenomenon, with PGR2 owners spreading the word to the wider gaming public until people were buying the game just to experience it for themselves!

When work started on PGR3, the team decided that Geometry Wars should be updated as well. Xbox Live Arcade and the new Microsoft Points business model is the perfect outlet for this sort of game, and it was one of the first (and best) games to appear on the 360's updated Arcade service. I would say it's definitely worth checking out the trial or the demo included in PGR3 and deciding for yourself whether to pay out 400 points for the privelidge of "owning" (if that's the correct term for something with no physical media) the game.

Graphics: 9 out of 10
Some of you may be wondering why GW:RE has scored a whole point more than PGR3 for the graphics, when it uses 2D instead of highly detailed 3D. Well, that's because I'm not judging them against each other. In my opinion, it's not fair to judge the visuals of a full retail 360 game against a Live Arcade title as they are by their nature very different beasts. The score here reflects how well it looks compared to it's other Live Arcade brethren.

That said, when the action heats up the graphics in GW:RE are quite remarkable. There are garish neon particles thrown everyway, hundreds of enemies swarming around you, and a grid in the background that warps and stretches in reaction to your gunfire and the gravitational pull of any active black holes on the screen. When things get really busy it can be quite hard for the player to keep up, but the 360 itself has no problems because of its three processor cores. One is entirely devoted to the grid, another to the enemy and player sprites, and a third to the sound. This guaruntees that the machine has more than enough power to chuck about any numer of bullets, enemies and particles.

Oooooh, shiny!

Music and Sound: 8 out of 10
There is a thumping techno soundtrack that plays in the background, which in itself sounds quite retro in an 80's dance/Commodore 64 SID chip kind of way. The sound effects actually play quite a big part in the gameplay. As each enemy type spawns on to the playfield, they each have their own unique sound effect. This is very useful and the playing area is bigger than the screen and the noises tell you for example that a black hole has just appeared, or dozens of annoying green squares have poured in. When you are busy keeping enemies of your back you can still keep track of when a black whole is about to explode from the speed of the sound playing, and the "sonic boom" style effect that happens when one detonates. In GE:RE, sound is your friend.

Game Mechanics: 9 out of 10
GE:RE is the perfect example of addictive, "just one more go" game design. It is tough, but balanced so that your skills will improve the more you play. There's a score multiplier system which builds up the longer you stay alive and the more enemies you can kill, all the way up to 10x. This will make you try and eke out each precious life for as long as possible in an attempt to beat your previous score. Xbox Live leaderboards have been implemented and allowed you to compare your score against your friends, or against the worlds best. The best players have some scarily high scores - well over 100 million points. When you just start out, breaking the 100,000 point milestone feels like quite an achievement in itself.

Which it is, because just like every other game on the 360, GE:RE features a range of unlockable Achievements which contribute towards your Gamerscore. You will have to be very good indeed to obtain some of these, but at least it gives you something to aim for.

Now that's just insane.

Innovation and Cleverness: 7 out of 10
While GE:RE loses a few points because it's a sequel to an existing game it also gains a few because of the way the game has been updated. The original was a very sparse, quite basic looking game, but the 360 version throws around particles and enemies until the screen looks like a grand firework display, and makes for a very impressive sight. Although the game is the spiritual successor to games like Robotron and Smash TV, it has it's own unique qualities which set it apart. Every enemy type has it's own behaviour pattern, and despite just being a collection of one's and zero's they really seem alive and out to get you.

Value and Replayability: 10 out of 10
Because of it's low low price of 400 Microsoft Points (about £3 in old money), I have absolutely no hesitation in giving GE:RE a maximum score in this category. Especially as you can basically keep playing the game for as long as you want. The game doesn't end until you die, it just gets harder and harder - just like games used to be in the good old days. Some will tire and go back to their Oblivion's or Call of Duty's and never look back - others will continue to dip in for the odd game (and probably end up playing for 2 hours) for years to come. But the beauty of it is, even if you do stop playing because the difficulty is too harsh or you're just not keen on the game, it will only have cost you a few quid anyway and you'll probably have got more mileage out of it than the average trip to the cinema (which can cost more than twice as much).

Overall: 9 out of 10
Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved is well worth spending 400 of your MS points on. It's very tough, which may put some off, but stick with it and you'll get better. GE:RE serves as the perfect example of what can be done on the Xbox Live Arcade service and remains the benchmark single player title to this day. What it doesn't really offer is any multiplayer action, unless you consider the leaderboard to be a multiplayer mode. If you're looking for fun simultaneous multiplayer action, check out my review of Marble Blast Ultra on day 4.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Project Gotham Racing 3 review

Welcome to part 1 of my Xbox 360 week. We start with Project Gotham Racing 3, and this Bizarre Creations really have hit the nail on the head when it comes to what make the definitive racing game for the 360. It's easily accessible to all with it's multiple difficulty settings and Trueskill ranking system, yet it has layers of depth and enough options to keep you entertained for months.

Format: Xbox 360
Publisher: Microsoft
Developer: Bizarre Creations
Genre: Driving
Region: PAL (Europe, Australia)
Price: £50 new, around £30 pre-owned

First off, a short history lesson. Although there's a 3 in the title, PGR3 is really the fourth game in the series. Way back in 2000, Metropolis Street Racer arrived on the Dreamcast and was way ahead of it's time. It featured three cities - London, Tokyo and San Francisco, a real time day/night cycle (which actually caused quite a few problems as it was very hard to see where to go in night time races), many different race types, and was obscenely large (I never finished it). It also introduced the concept of Kudos - points you earn for skillful driving and stylismaneuverses, which remain the cornerstone of the series to this day. You can check out a review I wrote way back when it was released on Gamefaq's here.

With the demise of Sega's beloved Dreamcast and the rise of the Xbox, Microsoft snapped up Bizarre Creations (who had also made quite a name for themselves with the first two Formula One games on the PlayStation) as part of it's own Microsoft Game Studios and work was begun on Project Gotham RacingOriginallyly this title was only meant to be a code name - Gotham being aaffectionatete nickname for New York, which was the major new addition to the game. The day/night cycle was dropped, the kudos system was refined further and made a bit more forgiving, and the game was just as large as ever. It did fairly well, so a sequel was planned.

Project Gotham Racing 2 was a big turning point for the series, and the Xbox console as well. The graphics were turned up to the max, the online play was one of the pioneers of the fledling Xbox Live service, and a large range of new cities were introduced, making this the biggest PGR by far. A medal system was also introduced, from Steel through to Platinum, which let players set their own difficulty and have something to aim for should they choose to replay the game later on. But the game was perhaps a bit too big, as in an interview with Edge magazine Martin Chudley from Bizzare stated that very few games actually bothered to play through all of the chapters.

Which brings us to Project Gotham Racing 3, arguably the best game on offer amongst the Xbox 360's launch line up. A conscious decision was made on Bizarre's part to pare down the number of cars, cities and race events to the bare essentials. Only the worlds finest sports cars make the cut this time - you'll see no Mazda Miatas or Toyota Sprinter's, instead you get 80+ supercars, such as the Enzo Ferrari, the Noble M14 or the TVR Custom Speed 12. There are only 4 cities in the game instead of PGR2's 12 or so, but the amount of detail lavished on each one makes previous games pale in comparison. Finally there are decidedly less events to complete in the solo career mode, but the online career and Playtime modes should see you playing a lot longer than before, plus you should actually be able to complete the solo career this time too.

Get your motor runnin'...

Graphics: 9 out of 10

Any of you that have played the game will probably be wondering why I have only given the graphics a 9, but I decided that as this is only a first generation 360 title, there's probably still room for them to get even better in later titles. As such, even though these are without a doubt the best visuals I've yet seen on the 360 (bearing in mind I've only owned one for a week) I think a 9 will do. Who knows what Forza Motorsport 2 or even a potential PGR4 will be able to achieve in the future?

Anyway, the graphics are one of the major draws to PGR3, as it's most likely the first thing you will notice about the game. The amount of detail featured in every track is insane. Veterans of the series will recognise certain areas of London and Tokyo from older games, but they've never looked this good. Then there are the cars. Oh my god, the cars!

Every car is accurate down to the tiniest detail, including the interior which you can look around using the right stick in the in-car view. In the replays you will notice that your surroundings are reflected in the paintwork of the car, which is particularly impressive on the night time Las Vegas tracks as all of the coloured lighting from the casino shineacrossss your car as you drive along the strip. You will even notice that the glass of the windscreen is accuratelmodeleded, and should you be driving at night with a rival behind you, their headlights will shine off it! The amount of work that has gone into the presentation of this game is quite remarkable.

Head out on the highway...

Sound & Music: 7 out of 10

The music in PGR 3 is quite a varied and weird mix. There's everything from Bangra, to Classical, to Rock, Rap and Hip Hop. Personally I would have liked a more consistent feel to it but I suppose it does reflect the world spanning nature of the game. However, thanks to the excellent feature of the 360 that lets you easily replace the music of any game with your own, you don't have to listen to the music in PGR 3 if you don't want to.

The sound effects fare much better, with every car having it's own engine note and the different views giving a different effect. In the car is where you will really hear the full voice of the engine, as you open the throttle on the back straight and blast past your opposition.

Lookin' for adventure...

Game Mechanics - 9 out of 10

The Kudos collecting nature of the earlier games in the series has been honed and fine tuned even further in PGR 3. There are more ways of earning Kudos than ever before, and more incentives for doing so. Reaching certain Kudos milestones increases your Rank, and gives you access to locked concept cars. This time you will also earn Credits as well, and these are used to actually buy the cars you want to drive. Car prices reflect the value of the cars in real life, so expect to do some saving if you want to buy a Ferrari F50 GTS, for example.

Luckily you will earn credits from offline or online play, so you still get a sense of progression from taking part in the online career. Microsoft's patented Trueskill system is well implemented and it will take you quite some time and commitment to achieve the highest ranks available. From personal experience I found it quite hard to find people to play against, possibly due to the games age (early adopters may well have moved on to other games). Things did pick up considerably at the weekend though, and you simply can't beat the thrill of winning your very first online career race, or coming first out of six people in a heated and very challenging battle around the leviathan track that is the Nurburgring Nordschleife.

The handling in PGR 3 feels a little bit more challenging than in PGR 2, with skilled use of the brake and e-brake being required to drift around corners without slamming in to the sides. It does feel "right" though, and you'll soon get used to it. It's great fun too.

As well as both solo and online career modes, there is a Playtime option. In here you will find options for unranked races, in single player, over system link anacrossss Xbox Live. This is also where you'll find some of the stranger game types, such as Capture the Track or Cat and Mouse. Capture the Track works by awarding a corner to whoever takes it at the fastest speed, and the winner is the one with the most corners at the end of the race. In Cat and Mouse, one player drives an E class vehicle, and his team mates drive A class vehicles, and the winning team is the one that manages to get their E class driver over the finishing line first. Playtime is also home to the route editor, where creative players can design their own routes through each of the cities to their hearts content. Personally, I prefer to drive on routes created by Bizarre, as player created routes often don't play anywhere near as well and feature distracting yellow arrows on the corners. All in all, Playtime is a worthy addition to the game and should be your port of call if all you want to do is enjoy some pressure free racing for a while.

Innovation & Cleverness: 6 out of 10

I've marked PGR 3 down a little bit in this category mainly due to the fact that yes, it is an update of an old franchise and nothing itrulyly new or revolutionary in the way that it was back in MSR. But the way it has been pulled of is very clever indeed and other developers could still learn a thing or two from Bizarre Creations.

The one true innovation that PGR 3 brings to gaming as a whole is Gotham TV - a dedicated TV channel on Xbox Live which broadcasts the best drivers in the world, and regular tournaments run by Microsoft. I attempted to qualify for one of these tournaments myself, in which you had to be amongst the 64 fastest times to get in, and I only managed to come 908th! To get in to one of these it will really take some skill, hard work and persistence. Maybe I'll try again one day, but I need a lot more practice first.

Value & Replayability: 9 out of 10

The multi tiered difficulty settings from PGR 2 have been brought back for number 3 and they work just as well as they did last time. For every challenge in the single player career mode you can choose one of five skill levels from Novice through to Hardcore (or Steel through to Platinum medals). This not only ensures that even the least skilled drivers should be able to get to the end, but it actively encourages replay to try and improve your medal. Like every other game on the 360, PGR 3 features Achievements that you unlock by fulfilling various criteria, in this case collecting all the Ferrari's or getting a Platinum medal in every event for example (which is not easy, let me tell you).

Once you have finished the solo career you still have the Playtime mode, which covers quick one player races, split screen and system link options, unranked online matches and the route creator. Throw in the fully fledged online career mode and there's enough to keep you coming back for quite some time (as long as you can find people to race against that is).

And whatever comes our way...

Overall: 9 out of 10

Of the four retail games I currently own, PGR 3 is my favourite. It featureimmenselyey satisfying handling, an adjustable skill level to ensure you never get stuck and always have something to aim for, the Achievements to give you the incentive to keep playing, and all the Xbox Live features you need to play for rankings or just for fun. The presentation is the icing on the cake and prove that Bizzare Creations still have what it takes after a decade of developing mainly racing titles. The only small niggle I have is that PGR 2 had many more cities, but there's always thpossibilityty that new ones could be put on Marketplace to download, and the quality of the environments that are on offer mean it's never really an issue. If you are a racing fan, then check out PGR 3 now!

Born to be wiiiiiiiiiiiiilllld!

Friday, August 11, 2006

Xbox 360 week starts Monday August 14th!

Beginning on Monday and running for 7 days straight, I will be posting a series of reviews for the Xbox 360. In the future I plan to do special dedicated weeks for other consoles as well, probably starting with the Dreamcast.

Here's the full schedule for the Xbox 360 week:

Day 1 - Project Gotham Racing 3
Day 2 - Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved
Day 3 - Ridge Racer 6
Day 4 - Marble Blast Ultra
Day 5 - Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion
Day 6 - Zuma Deluxe
Day 7 - Moto GP 06 and conclusion

I have 5 of the 7 reviews already written and ready to go so assuming everything goes to plan there will definitely be a new post every day at 9am GMT. See you Monday!

Thursday, July 06, 2006

The Xbox 360 is only two weeks away!

For me, that is. I know many of you will have owned one for at least six months, but I have yet to pick one up. There are various reasons for this, the main one being cash flow. Because I moved into my own flat last October and am now paying my mortgage and other regular bills off, spending £300 at once is out of the question. I aslo wasn't terribly enthusiastic about the machine, because in recent years I've become increasingly bored with the FPS genre, and that seems to be the most prevalent genre on the 360.

However, it wasn't really a question of if I would get one, it was more a question of when. Luckily, my bonus from work is going to be very nice indeed this year so there will be plenty of cash to pay for my car insurance and pick up an Xbox 360 as well. The number of games I'm actually interested in is increasing all the time - Project Gotham Racing 3, Ridge Racer 6, Kameo and Elder Scrolls: Oblivion all come instantly to mind, plus Xbox Live Arcade titles such as Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved, Marble Blast Ultra and the classic Smash TV. Then in the future, there's Lost Planet and Dead Rising from Capcom to look forward, which are both looking very exciting. I recently got a chance to play the Lost Planet demo, and Geometry Wars, and my anticipation for my shiny new machine has only increased. Finally, I might even pick up a copy of Forza Motorsport for the original Xbox and make use of the backward compatibility, as I never got around to playing the game when it was released.

I also picked up a lovely new black DS Lite at the end of last month (being at the much more impulse friendly price of £99), and it's totally fantastic. You notice colours that you never saw before on the old DS, and the new longer stylus is more comfortable to use too.

Finally, I can't leave out the PSP, as Loco Roco was recently released and has fast become the best game on the system in my opinion. I will post a full review just as soon as I finish going through all the levels, I promise. The PSP also now has it's own Platinum range, which means you can pick up great games like Ridge Racer, Wipeout Pure and Everybody's Golf for very reasonable prices.

If anyone reading this blog has any recommendations for Xbox 360 games, either full retail or on Xbox Live Arcade, please post a comment and let me know. I'm still quite new to the system and I'm currently researching what's available and trying to make my mind up what to get with my machine.